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The discourses of higher education in Ireland

Religion, nationalism and economic development

Author - Nora French


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The 1908 University Act is judged to have successfully resolved the religious and also the political problems of the nineteenth century. The framework provided by the act lasted for most of the twentieth century. In terms of religion, Catholics in the southern part of the country attended the National University. Trinity College remained a Protestant institution as had been made clear at its 300th anniversary in 1892: Trinity ‘was founded by Protestants, for Protestants and in the Protestant interest … and Protestant might it ever more remain’ (McCartney 1999: 1). Even when Trinity removed all barriers, the Catholic hierarchy imposed a ban on Catholics attending the university which lasted until the 1970s.

The political dimension refers to the rise in nationalism which had strengthened from the time of the famine in the 1840s and which divided the nationalist Catholic southern 26 counties and the Unionist Protestant six counties in the north-east. The separate establishment of Queen’s University in Belfast was recognition of this development and prefigured the subsequent political division of the country. The colleges of the National University emphasised the study of all aspects of Irish language and culture which reflected the great increase in political and cultural nationalism by the beginning of the twentieth century. Newman had talked of the cultural needs of the Irish but seemed to see them only in terms of religion. He expressed no interest or knowledge of Gaelic culture.

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, nationalism was a major factor in government education policy for several decades. The curriculum for primary and secondary education, under state control, was used to foster national identity (especially through the place given to the Irish language). The universities were autonomous but the colleges of the National University, in particular University College Dublin, were caught up in the nationalist movement, providing several of its leaders and many of the government leaders throughout the twentieth century. University College Dublin was colloquially known as ‘the national’ until the 1960s (McCartney 1999: 34).

Trinity, on the other hand, ‘retreated into its shell and let events pass it by’ (Luce 1992: 142). It did not participate to any great extent in national life. By 1959, only 43 per cent of its students came from the Republic – 40 per cent from the United Kingdom and 17 per cent from other countries. The situation changed rapidly after the lifting of the ban on Catholics attending in the early 1970s.

Until the 1960s, what little vocational higher education existed was found in technical colleges in Dublin (including the colleges which eventually became Dublin Institute of Technology), Cork and Limerick. These colleges operated under local vocational education committees and under the 1930 Vocational Education Act. This act had a narrow remit restricted to the teaching of instrumental education:

education pertaining to trades, manufactures, commerce, and other industrial pursuits (including the occupations of girls and women connected to the household) and in subjects bearing thereon or relating thereto and includes education in science and art (including, in the boroughs of Dublin and Cork, music) and also includes physical training.

(paragraph 4(1))

The legislation remained in place until 1992 when the Dublin Institute of Technology Act and the Regional Technical Colleges Act defined their role more appropriately for the development of the technological sector, in particular allowing for research.

The universities catered for the liberal professions and for secondary teaching, but they were essentially concerned with purely academic study and with providing a liberal education. The country was not industrialized which had been the spur for technological education elsewhere. The universities did not aspire to provide education of such a utilitarian nature or see it as their function to help in the creation of wealth. The change eventually came from outside the higher education sector. The traditional universities took some time to adjust to the change and to get involved.

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